An anthology edited and compiled by two friends, both with legendary pedigrees in the genre, with the theme of our closest celestial neighbor as we once imagined it? That’s what we have here in Old Mars edited by George R.R. Martin (who has a great deal of anthology & short fiction editing experience) and Gardner Dozois (the pre-eminent genre anthologist of our time). Mars has captured the imagination of humanity for decades and centuries, as George R.R. Martin recounts in his lengthy introduction.
This anthology revels in the spirit of the golden age of SF when little was known about our neighboring celestial body and life was thought to exist on the red planet. Taking cues from Burroughs, Verne, and Wells, editors Martin and Dozois have assembled 15 tales that conjure up a now (possibly?) invalidated future-of-the-past and look forward, embracing the imagination that Mars has been inspiring in storytellers for countless years.
The first story in the anthology is by Allen Steele, whose Coyote series of novels have been on the shelves since 2003. Here in “Martian Blood,” he turns his pen to an expedition into the wilds of the Martian natives with a doctor and his guide. The doctor wishes to extract blood from a native Martian to prove or disprove the genetic connection between Earth natives and Mars natives. Steele establishes a great sense of unease in the narrative and portrays the landscape of Mars in a manner that evokes both Frontier America and the wilds of Australia. There’s a divide between the Earthers and Martians that puts a twist on Wells’s War of the Worlds wherein Earth has invaded Mars and the Martians very much see humans as the invaders. This was strong start to the anthology and has me thinking I need to read more of Steele’s fiction.
“Ugly Duckling” by Matthew Hughes finds an archaeologist exploring the ruins of the Martian past in a place from which few have returned. Hughes plays with identity, past, and personality in this tale of obsession driving a man to discover what might be best left unexplored. Hughes conjured up a deep past for Mars in this story, and in some ways, a civilization that isn’t too dissimilar to our own.
David D. Levine’s story, “The Wreck of the Mars Adventure” at first seems a bit whimsical in its nature. The story takes place during the reign of William III, specifically in May 1701 when the accused pirate William Kidd is pardoned by the King himself. There is, of course, a catch. Kidd must accompany a much younger man to Mars in order to view the landscape. If Kidd returns, he gets a full pardon. Unfortunately, the trip takes longer than they planned and they land on Mars, rather than viewing it from afar. The story felt a bit slight compared to the first two, though it did provide an interesting perspective on Mars and its inhabitants.
S.M. Stirling, who has set some of his fiction on a Barsoom/Burroughs-esque Mars (Lords of Creation series, particularly In the Courts of the Crimson Kings) brings that pulpish sensibility to “Swords of Zar-Tu-Kan” mixed together tale of kidnap and rescue. This one didn’t work quite as well for me as I’d hoped.
Mary Rosenblum’s “Shoals” took a while to build narrative pull, but by the end, it proved to be a powerful melancholic tale. Rosenblum’s Martians are perhaps the most alien of any posited in the anthology—not everybody can see them. They are imbued with a sorrow that matches that of the story’s disabled protagonist Maartin, who has the ability to see the “ghosts” of Mars and could prove key in the future of the planet.
Prolific short story writer Mike Resnick’s “In the Tombs of The Martian Kings” is reminiscent of some of his published fiction, particularly the John Justin Mallory Mysteries. Both tales feature a pulpish protagonist with a snarky sidekick. The tale here has the feel of an Indiana Jones-type story set on the ruins of Martian civilization. In other words, this was quite a bit of fun.
“Out of Scarlight” by Liz Williams didn’t quite feel like a Mars story inasmuch as it felt a dreamlike vision. The story involved a missing dancer, romance, and a sorcerer.
Howard Waldrop’s “The Dead Sea-Bottom Scrolls” read almost like a journalistic account from a man of science. It was short, but stood out for the form and fashion in which the imagined Mars was conveyed.
James S.A. Corey’s “A Man without Honor” is one of the standouts of the anthology. A fantastic premise that evokes Burroughs’s Mars, but is ultimately a story that charts its own narrative as the high seas of earth and the wilds of Mars resonate into a milieu I’d love to see this collective author expand in more stories.
“Written in Dust” by Melinda Snodgrass features a strange Martian illness possibly affecting the protagonist which is made more difficult with the familial conflict with her fathers and grandfather. Although the story seemed more about family than Mars itself, I suppose that’s the point. Wherever humanity spreads, we’ll be experience the familial issues of discord and vitality.
“The Lost Canal” is Michael Moorcock’s entry in the anthology and he is no stranger to the Red Planet. This story was an episodic tale that paid great homage to the lost civilization stories of Mars. This was a fun story and I suspect it could possibly tie into Moorcock’s Eternal Champion mythos. The hero, Mac Stone, is pursued by robotic wombats (!!) as he tries to find and disarm a Star Bomb that could have planet-destroying consequences if left to explode.
Phyllis Eisenstein’s “The Sunstone” felt every bit the analogue for White Man’s intrusion into North America, with added mysticism. It was a fairly simple story, but worked all the better because of it.
Ice Sharks are a major feature of Joe R. Landsdale’s “King of the Cheap Romance,” so what more do you need to know? In addition to the thrilling chase scene, Landsdale conjures powerful emotions as a young woman and her father try to bring the cure to Martian Fever back to their village.
Chris Roberson’s “Mariner” features a character whose name may be familiar to those who have read his fiction—Jason Carmody. The Carmody clan has a knack for traveling between worlds. Here, Jason finds himself transported to a Mars where slavery is commonplace and he fights to keep his companion from being enslaved. A fun swashbuckling tale, which is what I hoped for when I saw Roberson’s name in the table of contents.
Ian McDonald spins a tale of people on the front lines of a Martian war in “The Queen of Night’s Aria.” This story didn’t work for me as well as the others in the anthology.
The majority of these stories were strong, fun and evocative. Tales of scientists and archeologists forging the past and looking to the future, only a few out of the dozen plus didn’t fully engage me (McDonald, Stirling, and Williams), while a few were definite standouts (Eisenstein, Corey, Roberson, Rosenblum, and Steele) and the remainder were satisfactory and enjoyable. With the recent discovery of more water on Mars than initially expected and the Curiosity Rover exploring our neighbor, this anthology is quite timely. Time will tell if any of the stories here are prescient, but the fun is there for the reading.
Old Mars is available now from Bantam.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, runs a blog about stuff and contributes to SF Signal. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, beer, and hockey, you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.